In keeping Turner, Smith, Chargers commit to mediocrity
There's no way of knowing if the alarm clock went off playing "I Got You, Babe'' at Dean Spanos' bedside this morning, but Tuesday does seem a bit like Groundhog Day in San Diego. What's that they say about the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?
That's in essence the charge the Chargers team president left himself open to in announcing the somewhat surprising return of both head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith, the same embattled tandem that has overseen one of the NFL's more underachieving franchises the past couple of years. In deciding to take a pass on making any changes in San Diego, Spanos lauded the "stability and experience'' that Turner and Smith bring to the table.
Stability could be another word for mediocrity in this case. Experience could be a handy description to divert attention from the lack of accomplishment.
In keeping Turner and Smith together for a sixth season, Spanos can rationalize his call by saying the Chargers could easily do worse than the leadership pairing that has produced a 49-31 record and three playoff berths in five years in San Diego. But the Chargers also might have easily been able to do better than their middling 17-15, non-playoff showing of the past two years with some sort of change at the top, a possibility that Spanos opted to not roll the dice on.
In some ways, you could see the status quo making a comeback in San Diego for weeks now. Forever on a streak of some kind, the Chargers finally started fast this season, getting out to a 4-1, first-place standing in the mild, mild AFC West as they took their Week 6 bye. And then, it's as if San Diego never returned from its break, losing six in a row, the franchise's longest skid since the days of coach Mike Riley and a nine-game freefall to close out 2001.
At 4-7, the Chargers had underwhelmed us once more, and Turner appeared to have next to no shot to be back in 2012. Smith, too, was thought to be in serious jeopardy of not returning. But then, the pressure seemingly off, the Chargers responded in late season, as we have seen them do time and time again. They won four out of their last five to scratch their way to a respectable 8-8, even though they were eliminated by a Week 16 blowout loss in Detroit, before finishing with a resounding 38-26 win in Oakland, eliminating the rival Raiders from the playoff chase and handing the division title to 8-8 Denver.
Spanos said he was greatly impressed with the Chargers' fight, and their lack of surrender in the season's final month. The problem is, if Turner's players respect him and really play as hard for him as Spanos seems to think they do, they would've somehow found a way to stop the bleeding and ended that season-killing losing streak in October and November. You are what your record says you are in the NFL, and the Chargers were a middle of the road 8-8 this year in an eminently winnable division.
If Spanos is prepared to dole out credit for the 4-1 start and the 4-1 finish that Turner and Smith oversaw, he shouldn't be discounting the six-game losing streak in between, when the roof caved in and took San Diego's playoff chances with it. What happened to Turner's coaching touch in Weeks 7-12, and how is it that the 2011 team Smith constructed failed to capitalize on its opportunity in a division that was begging to be won?
Like Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie standing behind Andy Reid one more time in Philadelphia -- Tuesday must have been "Love Your 8-8 Coach'' Day -- Spanos just gave Turner and Smith a pass they probably didn't deserve. And somehow I don't think Spanos should have dragged out the tired and unconvincing injury excuse as part of his explanation/support of his coach and GM, complaining that "injuries have killed us'' in recent years. Tell that to Houston, who made the playoffs this year despite a few setbacks on that front. Tell that to Green Bay, which won a Super Bowl ring last season with about one-third of the roster on IR.
No matter what he said to present Tuesday's news, Spanos wasn't going to effectively spin this one or please San Diego fans. The Chargers faithful know that a decision to accept mediocrity has been made, at least for this season. San Diego apparently didn't like the other options that existed on the coach-hiring front, wanted to save money, or the Chargers investigated and found out that no one with savior potential (Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden, perhaps?) was interested in them.
Whatever the motivation for the move, the return of Turner and Smith is not going to spark celebration or renew a level of confidence in their stewardship in San Diego. The five seasons they have spent on the job together have neatly illustrated the law of diminishing returns: A division title and two playoff wins in 2007; a division title and one playoff victory in 2008; a division title and no playoff wins in 2009; a 9-7 and out of the money in 2010; and this year's non-playoff 8-8 mark. At that rate, dread for 2012 seems perfectly understandable.
Spanos said Turner and Smith remain "the right men to help us win a championship,'' even though recent results seem to indicate otherwise, with San Diego's won-loss record headed in the opposite direction. The Chargers on Tuesday decided a steady-as-she-goes approach was preferable to making the wrong move, and opted to play it safe. It seems like the wrong time for caution in the Chargers organization, but maybe safe and sorry is the result Spanos fears the least. Getting things right only half the time is starting to become a habit in San Diego.
• Mike Martz's resignation as Chicago's offensive coordinator was a move that seemed to be put in motion after last season, when he rejected what he viewed to be a low-ball contract extension offer. Though he publicly said he wanted to return to the Bears in recent weeks when speculation about his coaching future surfaced, he in truth had little interest in serving a third season on Lovie Smith's staff.
I would not be surprised if Martz's departure results in offensive line coach Mike Tice's elevation to offensive coordinator in Chicago.
Of course, with the firing of general manager Jerry Angelo after 11 seasons on Tuesday, the Bears have a bigger opening to worry about than their offensive coordinator post. I would expect former Seattle president of football operations Tim Ruskell to be an internal candidate for the position -- he joined Chicago as director of pro personnel in 2010. Ruskell and Angelo have ties that go back to the days together in the Bucs personnel office, and that association perhaps could hurt Ruskell's candidacy. But it also would provide some continuity, a commodity the Bears ownership has been known to value over the years.
It also makes sense for the Bears to interview well-respected Packers director of football operations Reggie McKenzie, who has extensive knowledge of the NFC North and has been in serious consideration for other GM vacancies in recent years. McKenzie's name is thought likely to surface in connection with Oakland's efforts to remake its front office structure, but all things being equal, McKenzie likely would gravitate toward staying in the Midwest and within the division he knows best.
The Bears' intention to hunt for a new general manager while retaining head coach Lovie Smith in 2012 is fairly unconventional, but not a rare move for them. Chicago hired Angelo in June 2001, pairing him with incumbent head coach Dick Jauron. The Bears wound up going 13-3 and winning the NFC Central under Jauron in 2001, which wound up extending his stay in Chicago two more years, until the close of the 2003 season. Angelo then fired Jauron and hired Smith.